It was mid-September, and the game between the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays was done and forgotten by everyone but the beat reporters. Derek Jeter, who was nearing the end of a final-season road show that had overshadowed Tim Duncan’s fifth ring, Russell Wilson’s Super Bowl coming-out party, and the Major League season itself, had been presented before the game with a 16-foot kayak and a framed jersey of an ex-coach noted for his resemblance to a cartoon character (Popeye, Don Zimmer).
These pregame ceremonies had been staged for Jeter in practically every Major League ballpark, and his haul of odd mementos had included a cowboy hat and boots, an all-expenses-paid vacation to Canada, a crab dinner, a sailor’s cap, a Lego set, golf clubs, a fancy watch designed by Jay Z, and a double magnum of some very fine California red. Now, though, Jeter stood in the visitors’ locker room, in blue jeans and a T-shirt, signing a box of baseballs.
“You know enough about me by now,” he said. “You know what makes me tick.” The Captain—as generic (and apt) a nickname as you could imagine—says this with the weary and confident grin of a man who knows he will not be challenged. “What more could you want to know?”
But, of course, we know next to nothing about Derek Jeter. He is nearly as famous for his discretion—the monochromatic sound bite, the scandal-free biography—as he is for his play. Yet more is not really better. What good could come from knowing more about our last true and unassailable sports hero? What benefit could possibly result from ferreting out his real views, whatever they might be, his real feelings, assuming they exist, his favorite brand of shaving cream, his views on global warming or on Alex Rodriguez?
We know enough. We have 20 years of baseball statistics, data that better minds than mine can parse for decades to come. Let the space-age stat dudes meditate on his VORP and WARP and BABIP, the traditionalists sing the praises of his old-school determinants (3,465 hits, .310 batting average, five Gold Gloves). Both sides can agree that achieving this in evil New York is its own form of excellence, one related to and more significant than the championships (five), the signature moments (“the Dive,” “the Flip,” the “Mr. November” walk-off), and the kung-fu grip on the inside-out swing.
It’s not like we know nothing. The tribute stories published in the waning days of his final season attested to that, covering, as they often did, his predilection for the ladies (one story estimates that he’s dated a full 75 percent of this publication’s Hot 100. True? We’ll never tell); his origin story in baseball (a Houston Astro scout resigned in disgust in 1992 when the team declined to draft Jeter); his housing preferences (an absurdly large estate in Florida, a largely empty home in New York); his feelings about his fellow players (great bunch of guys); and his plans (a publishing imprint, a Web site for literary jocks, and—if all goes according to plan—intergalactic domination).
Anything more would undermine the rewards of not actually knowing. Think of how misty-eyed our fathers get over Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Nothing worthwhile came to them from truly understanding these men, whether it be that Mantle was a surly drunk or that Mr. Coffee actually drank tea.
We don’t admire our champions for their tragic flaws or ambivalent morality. We don’t look to them for complexity. That doesn’t mean they have to be saints—no fun in that. Would anyone really want to know that Joe Namath, in the glorious playboy days of the Fu Manchu mustache and the hot-and-cold-running chicks, was a feminist? Would that add to his legend or diminish it?
I will admit to a certain desire to party at the New York clubs with Jeter, everything offered for free, from bottle service to stock tips to women (and men and animals and the blood of the firstborn). But I don’t want it so badly that I would risk knocking the man from his pedestal. He does more for me there than anywhere else.
Jeter’s bland brand of perfection can, in truth, be infuriating, the way he stays just shy of full comprehension and three dimensions. That night in Tampa, for example, I asked Jeter if he’d had any second thoughts about retiring. His response, humbly put and politely expressed, might have been directly downloaded from a network of linked computers maintained at an outsourced jock-talk facility in New Delhi. He wanted to leave the game with “dignity.” Time to “step aside.” “Right thing to do.”
So Jeter gave us nothing, not really, and because we need our heroes, even today, at times we embarrass ourselves in the ways we fill in the gaps, craving flesh for the bones. I am thinking of the 2008 study at the University of Pennsylvania that concluded that Jeter was, in fact, the worst shortstop in all of Major League Baseball. Or this joking 2009 tidbit from Deadspin: “Jesus is the Derek Jeter of Christianity.”
Here is the furthest I am willing to go in attempting to solve the Derek Jeter riddle: He fends us off out of respect, for himself, of course, but also for us. To leave Derek Jeter alone is to acknowledge him as a revered figure but also as one with bona fide humanity. He left me in the locker room with what came as close to new information as you are going to get from him. I asked him how he felt that night accepting cheers from the crowd. Again he started me with boilerplate about the whole thing being an honor. But the last thing he said? “All of this lately has been a lot to absorb.” To that I could relate.
Photos by Boston Globe / Getty Images